Why do Switzerland’s German and French speakers disagree about easing of Covid-19 restrictions?

The opinions of German and French speakers on various issues often diverge – the cultural phenomenon commonly called the ‘Röstigraben’. They also have different views about the announced relaxation of coronavirus-related restrictions.

Why do Switzerland’s German and French speakers disagree about easing of Covid-19 restrictions?
Many Swiss want to resume normal activities soonest possible. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

This week the Federal Council announced it would be easing the coronavirus-related restrictions at the end of the month.

But not all Swiss are happy about this news.

A survey commissioned by a Swiss broadcaster SSR and published this week, shows that while people living in the Swiss German part are in a rush to lift the confinement measures, those in the French part —Romandie —  prefer a slower process.

In German-speaking Switzerland, 45 percent of respondents would like current measures to be lifted or abandoned altogether. Among French speakers, that number is only 19 percent.

Why is there such a divergence between the two linguistic regions? According to RTS television’s Andreas Stüdli, various factors are at play: 

The number of cases.

The two large French-speaking cantons of Vaud and Geneva have had far more cases than their Swiss-German counterparts.

To date, there are over 4,600 known infections in Vaud and more than 3,900 in Geneva. As a comparison, the biggest Swiss-German canton, Bern, has nearly 1,400 cases, and second-largest, Graubünden, 688. In Zurich, which has the highest population in the country, there are just 2,800 cases.

READ MORE: Coronavirus across Europe: How countries are plotting a path back to normality and is it the right time? 

Economic interests

With 63 percent of Switzerland’s population, the Swiss-German part is larger than the Romandie (22.7 percent). It follows that more businesses are located in the Swiss-German part, and they are eager to re-launch the ever-more struggling economy. 

The business associations in French-speaking regions, on the other hand, want to move slower, while advocating stronger cantonal aid for sectors such as the hotel industry, agriculture and the self-employed.

Stüdli also said that, due to their geographical proximity to France, the Romands are more influenced by the more stringent measures in that country, including the curfew.

“Germany, which is less strict, is more of a reference for German-speaking Switzerland. That certainly has an impact”, he added.

What about Ticino?

In the Italian-speaking canton, which has been one of the most impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, 27 percent of those surveyed said that the restrictions should be relaxed, so they fall between the French and German speakers.

READ MORE: What we know about the victims of the coronavirus pandemic in Switzerland 

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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.